How so­ci­eties are de­fined by the seg­men­ta­tion of time

Ever won­dered why an hour lasts 60 min­utes? How we think of time not only de­pends on where, but the age in which we live, writes Caleb Everett

Bangkok Post - - ROUNDUP - Caleb Everett is a pro­fes­sor and chair of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami, and an An­drew Carnegie Fel­low. His lat­est book is ‘Num­bers and the Mak­ing of Us’.

Why does an hour last 60 min­utes? Why does a minute last 60 sec­onds? We use these units be­cause some of the first peo­ple to make pre­cise as­tro­nom­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions, the Baby­lo­ni­ans, utilised a base-60 (sex­a­ges­i­mal) num­ber sys­tem that they in­her­ited from a more an­cient pop­u­la­tion in Me­sopotamia, the Sume­ri­ans. The Sume­rian base-60 sys­tem proved in­flu­en­tial on Baby­lo­nian and Greek as­tronomers and, be­cause of this in­flu­ence, it was later used by Euro­peans to di­vide hours into 60 equal units.

But, some might say, “hours” them­selves are real, given to us by na­ture. Yet these time units, too, are a lin­guis­tic rem­nant. When sun­di­als were first de­vel­oped in an­cient Egypt, their cre­ators re­lied on a base-10 (dec­i­mal) sys­tem wherein 10 serves as a re­cur­ring el­e­ment within larger ver­bal num­bers (“thirty-one”, “forty-one”, etc.) As a re­sult, their sun­di­als broke up the day’s shad­ows into 10 units. Egyp­tians added two units to rep­re­sent the times around sun­rise and sun­set. The re­sul­tant 12-unit sys­tem was ac­quired by var­i­ous cul­tures and even­tu­ally ap­plied to both days and nights to yield a di­ur­nal cy­cle with 24 ma­jor seg­ments.

If all of this seems ar­bi­trary, that is be­cause it is. There is an as­tro­nom­i­cal ba­sis for di­vid­ing time into years and days. But most tem­po­ral units came into ex­is­tence only be­cause of the fea­tures of par­tic­u­lar lin­guis­tic and math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tems. Time seems ob­jec­tive, as if it tran­scends our so­cio-cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment. But the ways we think of time de­pend pro­foundly on the place — and time — in which we live.

Tem­po­ral con­ven­tions are given to us so early in our devel­op­ment that a per­son may not re­mem­ber his or her life be­fore it was dis­sected into weeks, hours and min­utes. From in­fancy, lin­guis­ti­cally con­tin­gent cog­ni­tive im­ple­ments sculpt the way we ex­pe­ri­ence the pass­ing of time.

The num­bers that we use to keep track of time dif­fer dra­mat­i­cally across lan­guages and cul­tures. For ex­am­ple, num­ber sys­tems vary with re­spect to their bases. While an­cient Me­sopotami­ans re­lied on a sex­a­ges­i­mal sys­tem, most cul­tures have come to rely on dec­i­mal sys­tems like the Egyp­tians’ or ours or, less fre­quently, base20 (vi­ges­i­mal) sys­tems like that em­ployed by the Maya.

The Mayan cal­en­dar had 20 names for days, in con­trast to our seven, be­cause of the vi­ges­i­mal na­ture of Mayan num­bers. The pop­u­lar­ity of dec­i­mal and vi­ges­i­mal sys­tems owes it­self to a non-tem­po­ral fea­ture in na­ture, the quan­tity of our fin­gers and toes, but many other kinds of num­bers ex­ist, in­clud­ing the base-6 (senary) sys­tems found in some lan­guages of New Guinea. Had an­cient Egyp­tians used a senary sys­tem, our days might have 16 hours in­stead of 24, since day­light could have first been di­vided into eight (6+2) units in­stead of twelve.

Some lan­guages rely on re­stricted num­ber sys­tems with­out any bases at all. These in­clude the “one-two-many” sys­tems of some pop­u­la­tions in Ama­zo­nia and Aus­tralia. Some hunter-gath­er­ers do not use any pre­cise num­bers. Re­search by cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists has shown that such num­ber­less adults do not ex­actly dif­fer­en­ti­ate quan­ti­ties greater than three. In­stead, they rely on the ap­prox­i­ma­tion of most quan­ti­ties in their day-to-day lives.

“One-two-many” cul­tures are not atavis­tic hold­outs from the Pa­le­olithic, but the ways they ex­pe­ri­ence the pass­ing of time seem to re­flect the ways that most peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced time for most of our species’ ex­is­tence. Min­utes and sec­onds did not re­ally in­flu­ence Euro­pean life un­til the us­age of ac­cu­rate clocks in church tow­ers be­came wide­spread in the 15th and 16th cen­turies. Pen­du­lum-based clocks and spring-loaded watches were in­vented and re­fined in the 17th and 18th cen­turies, bring­ing min­utes and sec­onds to the masses.

These in­ven­tions fa­cil­i­tated the co­or­di­na­tion of labour that proved crit­i­cal to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion and en­abled bet­ter nav­i­ga­tion. They also made our per­cep­tion of time less nat­u­ral. Our con­strual of time came to re­volve around quan­ti­ta­tively based cul­tural con­ven­tions like min­utes and sec­onds, be­com­ing less cen­tred around nat­u­ral rhythms like the di­ur­nal cy­cle. Pre­cise mea­sure­ment of time also ad­vanced sci­ence and our un­der­stand­ing of time it­self. Einstein’s proof of the rel­a­tive na­ture of elapsed time was based on the con­stancy of the speed of light, which he knew to be about 300,000 km per sec­ond.

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing cul­tural dif­fer­ences sur­round­ing time-sense are not re­lated to num­bers, but to how we turn time into space. English speak­ers of­ten speak of past events as though they are “be­hind” the speaker while fu­ture events are “ahead” of them. In con­trast, speak­ers of Ay­mara in the An­des re­fer to the fu­ture as be­ing be­hind them, while the past is in front. (This makes sense, in a way, since we can more clearly “see” what hap­pened in the past.)

The Yupno of New Guinea re­fer to the past as be­ing down­hill, the fu­ture as up­hill. Such di­verse per­spec­tives sur­face in ges­tures, too: When English speak­ers talk about past events they of­ten point back­wards, while Ay­mara speak­ers point for­wards. The Yupno point down­hill when dis­cussing past events, re­gard­less of the di­rec­tion they are fac­ing while speak­ing.

Be­ing hu­man does not re­quire the us­age of pre­cise tem­po­ral mea­sure­ments, nor does it re­quire that we even think of time in the same ways when we are not mea­sur­ing it. Time is fun­da­men­tal to our lives but dis­crim­i­nated in cul­tur­ally de­pen­dent ways.

The rad­i­cal vari­abil­ity in how hu­mans con­strue time il­lus­trates the ex­tent to which com­mu­nica­tive con­ven­tions can pro­foundly im­pact our lives. More and more, cross-cul­tural re­search on time and other ba­sic facets of life is demon­strat­ing the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence is more var­ied than of­ten as­sumed. The ex­plo­ration of cul­tural and lin­guis­tic vari­a­tion is crit­i­cal to ad­vanc­ing our un­der­stand­ing of others and our­selves. Con­tin­u­ing this ex­plo­ration is well worth our time.


Work­ers con­tinue ren­o­va­tion work on El­iz­a­beth Tower that houses the Big Ben bell in Lon­don, Eng­land.

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